After embarrassing missteps over imperial honours, Tony Abbott will try to make up for some foreign policy howlers when he visits China next month as part of the most ambitious offshore trip by an Australian prime minister in living memory. But he’ll have to do some serious diplomatic acrobatics to avoid making things worse.

Backed by a trailing entourage of three ministers, 20 CEOs, hundreds of Australian business-folk and a busload of advisers, Abbott will visit Australia’s No. 1, 2 and 4 trading partners: China, Japan and South Korea. Together they make up 40% of Australia’s two-way trade.

You can’t fault Abbott for trying, but organisation for the entire trip, from April 6-13, has been extremely rushed and utterly chaotic. There appears to be little strategy in this everything-and the-kitchen-sink approach. And if his speech this week to the Asia Society (pictured) was any indication, Abbott has yet to find a narrative for what Australia needs badly: a grand vision for our regional future.

First stop will be Japan from April 6-9, where Abbott will warmly embrace nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, supporting his plan to change the country’s post-war constitution, which forbids it from having a regular defence force. And in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review published overnight, in response to a question about whether Japan should normalise its defence forces, Abbott said:

“I think this is a very reasonable thing for Japan to want. Japan has been a very good international citizen for a very long time now, and I think it’s more than time to put the tragedies of the WWII era behind us and embrace the future.”

Listen, you can hear the roar of anger from Beijing.

The centrepiece of the Japan visit will be to “finalise” the free-trade agreement, or Economic Partnership Agreement. The biggest sticking point is beef tariffs, now 38%; they will likely be cut in half. But Abbott’s lippy Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce — the man just a heartbeat away from being deputy prime minister — has noted with his trademark diplomacy this is not enough and that, in any case, the Chinese can take all the beef we produce.

Two weeks out, Australian organisers in Japan say there is still no official word on which Australian industry barons will be accompanying Abbott. James Packer (revealed last week in Crikey) will be going, at least to Japan, where he is lobbying for a casino licence. Other names reported to be in the party are Kerry Stokes, Macquarie’s Nicholas Moore, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto’s Andrew Mackenzie and Sam Walsh, Wesfarmers’ Richard Goyder, Santos’ David Knox, CSL’s Paul Perreault, ANZ Asiaphile Mike Smith, and Andrew Forrest. Not all will necessarily go to Japan and South Korea, with China the main focus. Diaries are being shuffled daily.

The Chinese stage of the visit from April 9-12 will be a whirlwind three stops in four days: planes, cars and hotels. Abbott will be meeting the Communist Party’s top two: lunch with Premier Li Keqiang on April 10 in Boao and dinner — along with (at this stage) five state or territory leaders — with President Xi Jinping in Beijing in April 11.

“… dinner with the notoriously upfront Xi could be very interesting.”

In between, he will stop in Shanghai for the night to meet up with Australian state and territory leaders Colin Barnett (Western Australia), Barry O’Farrell (New South Wales), Denis Napthine (Victoria) and Adam Giles (Northern Territory). It remains unclear whether new Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman or the lone Labor outlier Jay Weatherill are on the list.

Abbott’s early belly flops in foreign policy with China (and elsewhere) leave him in a bad position. He now has to prove to an increasingly sceptical audience in Beijing that he is worthwhile, a Herculean feat.

First: the triple trade somersault. The Japanese free-trade agreement has the beef issue to overcome. China wants lower investment hurdles for its deal, and Australia wants ground on agriculture and access to services market. This is likely to prove harder after Abbott has been actively promoting Japan’s defence ambitions. The third tumble is easier with the agreed free-trade agreement with South Korea, where he stops last from April 12-13, already agreed.

Next there is the pike. The logistical nightmare begins at the Boao Forum on the swampy, windy side of Hainan Island. It’s two hours from the nearest airports in Sanya or Haikou, with limited accommodation options. In fact, it’s such a nightmare Abbott’s office last week looked seriously at cutting it from the trip. Abbott and his party will land in Sanya and travel to Boao, but most of his attendant flunkies and travelling hacks will stay in Sanya, arising at sparrow fart to be bused up the island for what promises to be an 18-hour day. As well as lunch with Li, Abbott is scheduled to give a short speech at the conference plenary session. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is set to join him. There’s also his mate Andrew Forrest’s Australia China Business Dialogue to zip through.

Mid-afternoon it’s off again for the five- or six-hour schlep to Shanghai, which is supposed to land him at the Shangri-la Pudong for the China Mining Club dinner — the speaker is Wang Lixin, chairman of China Minmetals. But if Abbott brushes off dinner in favour of the state premiers, most of whom are not going to Boao, it will be another black mark from Beijing.

Just to make things as difficult as possible, Trade Minister Andrew Robb and Small Business Minister Bruce Billson will preside over a five-day, four-city “Australia Week” business conference that covers myriad topics from April 9-12. Austrade was been ordered to summon 600 companies — at very short notice — to attend the conference. Oddly, China-based Australian companies without ABNs have been told they are not welcome. Australian officials in China are tearing their hair out.

Locals on the ground are complaining about a wall of silence from Canberra, and Austrade international chief Laurie Smith has had to step in to take charge. To make matters worse, the Chinese are angry, riled by all the extra work, logistics and security at short notice.

Then there is the twist. News came out just this week that the United States will ramp up its marine base in Darwin, a strategy already loathed by Beijing. Add to this Abbott’s overtly pro-Japanese stance and dinner with the notoriously upfront Xi could be very interesting.

Peter Fray

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